Portrait

The Victorian Labor leader stands taller ahead of the election. By Kate Holden.

Daniel Andrews, Dan of the people

Quiet Tuesday outside, grey Melbourne hush. Even the buses on Punt Road seem silent, swooshing on air brakes, stirring brown leaves in Collingwood gutters. Inside the town hall the roar of firefighters is immense. A few women, hundreds of men. Sitting with arms crossed, jawing with each other, wearing T-shirts: Napthine slashes, you burn. The United Firefighters Union: they’re not partisan, they say, but the Libs have spent $21 million in the courts to degrade their working conditions.

Unprecedented station closures. Unprecedented drop in enrolments. The Fiskville training centre cancer tragedy. The members sit, nodding; they’re suffering. Would you please welcome the leader of the opposition. The reporters chewing gum at the side table look up, the camera operators rise to their tripods. And Daniel Andrews steps out of the side door, glare of lights, treads stately through the standing crowd, applause breaking over his head. The sound of 200 healthy men clapping. He reaches the front, appears on the big screen above. The suit is a beautiful rich blue. The shirt is powder-white; no tie. He could drink Campari in this get-up.

Perhaps more Obama than Turnbull. He stands there nodding under the din, is calm, is ready. He’s very still. No sweating hairline these days, no peevish stoop, no dorky wonk denying health system failures. Gently smiling. Waits and speaks. Small hand movements, nothing showy. The poll numbers are good. A week-and-a-half to go. He just has to hold his nerve.

So he speaks of risk, of imagining what they go through, see, face; what it feels like to go into danger, to have responsibility, every hour of every shift. The cancer risks. The dread of no back-up. Speaks with empathy, concern, respect. It’s not politicians who keep Victorians safe. It’s firefighters like you. The right government is about supporting you, to in turn support every member of our community, often at their most vulnerable, often at their lowest ebb. Clapping, clapping. Now: presumptive legislation to recognise occupational cancer. An extra 450 firefighters to be recruited. A new post-traumatic stress clinic. Love, care, understanding, he intones. We must take care of the people who take care of us. The men are on their feet, applause like an avalanche. So relieved. He stands, pressing his lips in humble acknowledgement, glancing serious looks around: he’s with them. On the big screen above, it all plays out. His cheeks are boyish pink.

It must feel wonderful, to promise what they want, to speak tenderly of the vulnerable, the distressed and misunderstood. Speaks of the ambos, too, and their needs; of science and research and facts; of sacrifice. He is earnest. We need to put this right. We need to do this better. He’s nailed it. He’s got them. The clapping goes on for ages.

Outside, the dead leaves, buses, a bored security guy playing with his phone. In The Age someone writes that she’ll go mad if Andrews says one more time that it’d be a great honour to lead this great state of Victoria. “Give up on the fake humility,” says Mary, exasperated.

Friday, and he walks up the length of a Williamstown pier with South Australian premier Jay Weatherill. Careful companionable tread to the awaiting mike and cameras. Reverent hush in another grey silken morning; still camera shots click. He squints in the cool breeze. Weatherill is wearing a svelte pale suit. Andrews in dark stuff. Someone shines these men’s shoes so they gleam creamily. A tiny curl of hair is poking out on the back of Andrews’ neat head. Someone finally says something, about football.

Prepared speeches commence. They want to keep defence shipbuilding in their states, not overseas. Optimistic, positive approach to the future. Highest standards. Working together to grow opportunities. Gaggle of minders, journos, cameramen: they’re listening but they’re not the audience. Around, the satin silver water of the harbour, the ship masts motionless and the city skyline beyond, a naval ship alongside. Hammer bangs distantly. A plane sighs overhead. A small group of sightseers hurries past the little throng on the empty pier. Seagulls preoccupied.

No matter where the questioner, the men address the space between the cameras. Strange, to turn away from the person you’re answering. But the voters are out there beyond the grey lapping waters. More calm, hopeful proclamations. If we have the great honour to lead this great state of Victoria … Unamplified, Andrews’ voice is soft, emphatic, heartfelt. I’m very proud to stand with our paramedics. With our firefighters, our ambos, our nurses. They do such an amazing job and it’s not politicians who save lives, it’s …

A woman in a parka with long white hair passes behind the cameras, walks stolidly towards the end of the pier. She stares out at the grey water, the white sky. We have many challenges in our state but also opportunities. I’ll never abuse my position. We will work hard. The woman turns and walks back. She doesn’t glance at the cameras, the politicians. And at the end of the press conference, the men stride off towards their bus, oblivious to a dog sitting on the path, a dog as big as a pony.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 29, 2014 as "Dan of the people". Subscribe here.

Kate Holden
is the author of the memoirs In My Skin and The Romantic: Italian Nights and Days.